Over the past three-and-a-half years, the outback mining town of Leonora in Western Australia has been a temporary home for asylum seekers. Last month however, the Federal Government announced that Leonora’s detention centre – along with three other centres on Australia’s mainland – would close by the end of February.
For Good Samaritan Sister Annette Dever, a parish pastoral worker in the communities of Leonora, Laverton and Leinster since 2003, the presence of the asylum seekers has been positive and enriching for the broader community. It’s also had a “great impact” on her.
“Their presence will be part of this town forever. They’re history now; they’ve been here and they’ve been part of this town,” Annette told The Good Oil.
“They will stay in my heart forever. I’ll pray for them especially, and of course, all other asylum seekers as well.”
Annette said the asylum seekers reminded her of “the silent neighbour at our door”.
“We don’t know them very well – the silent neighbour – but God is asking us to be aware of them,” she explained.
As a result of overcrowding at the Christmas Island detention facility, asylum seekers first arrived in Leonora in June 2010, where they were accommodated at a former mining camp.
While “initial negative remarks” were expressed from “a few people” and “published very readily on the TV”, Annette said people were accepting and supportive of the asylum seekers.
She paid tribute to the leadership of Leonora Shire’s CEO and President who set the “tone for the community” to follow. The interaction of asylum seekers with local people and their participation in community events – accompanied by detention centre staff – was also beneficial.
“They were welcomed at all the community activities… Anything that the town had on, the asylum seekers were always invited. And sometimes they responded and sometimes they didn’t,” she said.
For most of the three-and-a-half years, Leonora housed families from Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka. In the first 18 months, children attended the local school.
“It was very obvious that families related to families, and people in the town got to know these people better because their children were in the playground… It was a great witness to parents and people,” Annette said.
“Even the people in the town, like in the pubs and different places, were known to say, ‘These children deserve an education’. People did accept and tried to do the best for them.”
When the asylum seekers first arrived, Annette was invited to lead prayer services at the detention centre. But it didn’t take long before the asylum seekers were allowed to attend weekly services at Leonora’s Sacred Heart Church.
“It was such a pleasure to have them… They really sincerely wanted to be there and they loved joining in,” said Annette.
Conversely, she said the church community “loved having them here because they got to know them and they would talk to them… They had the opportunity of seeing that these people were like us, just looking for a better life”.
Twice each week Annette would also visit the detention centre. She said the managers and staff there treated the asylum seekers “very humanely” and “without judgement”.
“It was really a pleasure to go down and be there with them because it was a very caring environment and very caring community… They cared about these people and they wanted the best for them.”
While visiting, Annette didn’t question asylum seekers about their journeys, but every so often, they would share something of that experience with her. “I used to find it hard not to cry,” she reflected. “You only just get one or two stories and you realise what they’ve been through.”
Annette said the asylum seekers have brought her closer to God. “They have shown me the face of God in their suffering and how they’ve hung on.”
Toward the end of last month, most of Leonora’s asylum seekers had been transferred to the detention centre in Darwin, but Annette knows of one family who was deported to Iran.
At church recently, the community prayed for the asylum seekers. “They were missed very obviously and their absence was certainly marked,” said Annette.
Speaking to a local couple about the impact of the asylum seekers on Leonora, she said: “Even if the people don’t know it, the people did [the asylum seekers] a great service. And they also did the town a great service. It was mutual because [the asylum seekers] brought gifts to the town and then the town accepted them and helped them on their journey.
“So it was a very beautiful experience that I think Leonora had. And maybe some people won’t even realise it – probably a lot of people won’t realise it – but it happened. It was just like God visited this town; he passed through, but he left his mark.”